The Role of Birth Control in Ovarian Cancer Prevention

Ovarian cancer is the third most common gynecological cancer worldwide. But it is often diagnosed at an advanced stage, when it is harder to treat. Because of this, researchers are hoping to find ways to prevent this type of cancer.1

The use of birth control pills (oral contraceptives) has been shown to reduce the risk of ovarian cancer in women who have an average risk of ovarian cancer and those who have a high risk. Studies have shown that women who use oral birth control for 5 or more years reduce their risk of ovarian cancer by about 50 percent. This effect increases the longer they take birth control pills and lasts after they stop taking them.2,3

Types of oral birth control

Birth control pills are made of synthetic hormones. There are 2 types: the combined pill and the mini pill. The combined pill contains synthetic (lab-made) estrogen and progesterone. The mini pill contains only progesterone. It is not safe to take an estrogen-only pill. These pills prevent pregnancy by stopping ovulation and making it difficult for sperm to enter the uterus.4

There are many other birth control methods besides the oral kind. These include the arm implant, intrauterine devices (IUDs), and injections. Some women have switched from birth control pills to one of these methods for various reasons. While these are very effective birth control options, experts are not sure yet whether they, too, can reduce ovarian cancer risk.3

Birth control and ovarian cancer

Both types of birth control pills contain just enough hormone to stop ovulation without causing other harmful effects to the body. During ovulation, an egg grows in a pocket called a follicle in the ovary. When the egg grows large enough, it breaks open the follicle and travels toward the fallopian tube. This signals the ovary to produce hormones.5

Experts believe that birth control pills reduce your risk of ovarian cancer because they stop ovulation. High levels of natural progesterone and estrogen can increase the development of cells in certain areas, increasing cancer risk. Without ovulation, the ovaries do not produce these high levels of estrogen and progesterone each month.4

Birth control and other cancers

Oral birth control has also been found to have an effect on other cancers, such as endometrial, breast, and cervical cancer.3

Endometrial cancer

The endometrium is the lining of the uterus. This is what grows and then sheds during the menstrual cycle. Birth control use may reduce your risk of endometrial cancer by up to 30 percent.3

Cervical cancer

Birth control use has the opposite effect on cervical cancer risk. Research has found that the risk of cervical cancer increases the longer someone uses oral birth control. Using oral birth control for more than 10 years can double your risk. It is very important to keep up to date with cervical cancer screening like Pap smears to detect cervical cancer.3

Breast cancer

Birth control pills that contain estrogen can also slightly increase your risk of breast cancer. If you have a family history of breast cancer, ask your doctor whether birth control methods containing estrogen are right for you. It is also important to keep up to date with mammograms.3

Can I prevent ovarian cancer in other ways?

There are some surgeries that may reduce your risk of some types of ovarian cancer. These include removal of your fallopian tubes and even your ovaries. Doctors rarely remove the ovaries in people younger than 65. Removing them can force the body into early menopause.2

Also, these are major surgeries. Doctors agree that they should be performed only for a current medical need, not as a way to reduce cancer risk.2

Unfortunately, there are some ovarian cancer risk factors that cannot be avoided. This includes things like older age or a family history of ovarian cancer. In these circumstances, you may need to avoid other risk factors such as hormone replacement therapy. Your doctor can help you decide the right path for you.2

Oral birth control was first developed in the 1960s and has been widely embraced in the United States and Europe ever since. Experts believe that the decrease in ovarian cancer is a direct result of oral birth control use. If you want to learn more about your ovarian cancer risk or about oral birth control, speak to your gynecologist.3

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